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All the References in Taylor Swift’s Title Track ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

11 minute read

Are you ready for it? Taylor Swift’s 11th studio record, The Tortured Poets Department, is finally here, and it’s clear she has a lot to say about her recent bouts of heartbreak. On the (surprise!) double album’s title track, she’s specifically focused on a breakup with someone who isn’t her longtime love Joe Alwyn. The references on “The Tortured Poets Department” seem to point to a different London boy: The 1975’s Matty Healy, who, if he knows what’s good for him, will stay off the internet for a few days because people definitely have feelings about Swift going long on their two-month situationship which ended last June.

But Healy’s not the only one who gets a shout out on track 2, a melodramatic ode to a guy who, for better or worse, is cut from the same cloth as her. And just like that one of the greatest Welsh poets of all time, an iconic punk rocker, and Charlie Puth have all earned themselves a spot in Swiftian lore.

Below, an explanation of all the references you need to make sense of “The Tortured Poets Department.” 

Matty Healy

Who uses typewriters anyway? Well, Tom Hanks, for starters, but let’s assume Swift isn’t writing love songs about the nicest guy in Hollywood leaving one at her apartment. All signs point to Healy, who told GQ five years ago that a typewriter is one of the things he can’t live without. (Interestingly enough, in that same interview, he talked about his notebook, another thing he cherishes, being mostly full of “stories that I write about my dreams of being in love with other pop stars.”) The fact that the man in this song left one of his favorite things at Swift’s home feels like a sign pointing to just how head over heels he was for her. Too bad she’s more of a quill pen kind of girl

For another clue that Healy is the object of this song’s affection, look no further than Swift’s later reference to her man being “a tattooed golden retriever.” Healy, who is covered in tattoos, certainly fits the bill. Not to mention, he has ink inspired by one of the original Beat poets William S. Burroughs, who could certainly be described as tortured. But it’s a rather interesting analogy to make being that, in dating parlance, golden retrievers are known to be wholly loyal, supportive, goofy, and laidback, which doesn’t quite fit with The 1975 singer’s chaotic public persona. It does, on the other hand, sound more than a bit like someone else Swift knows. (This song is not about her current beau, though fans sure think “The Alchemy” is.)

Dylan Thomas

Swift may be hopelessly devoted to her new guy, but what she makes clear on the title track’s rather scathing chorus is that Dylan Thomas he is definitely not, going so far as to laugh in his face for being delusional enough to ever think such a thing. (It’s worth noting that Healy has been known to dabble in poetry.) The wildly popular Welsh poet, who got his start in the 1930s, was known for his hyper emotional style of lyrical poetry that was full of clever wordplay and visual imagery. He was considered a New Romantic for the way in which used the Romantic era of the late 18th century and early 19th century as inspiration to create a literary style all his own. One of his most famous works is 1931’s Do not go gentle into that good night, which urges readers to fight bravely against death no matter when it comes.

Perhaps, after reading his poetry, you won’t be surprised to learn that Thomas had a reputation for being quite the tormented artist. As he got older, he struggled with alcoholism, which led him to act erratically. His friends would say his drinking was his way of coping with his shyness, depression, and financial instability. In her 1982 memoir, Thomas’ wife, Caitlin Thomas, said that her marriage to the poet “was not a love story proper; it was more of a drink story.” When she died 12 years later, the New York Times would describe her as Thomas’ “drinking and brawling partner.” 

Thomas died in 1953 at the age of 39 after collapsing at Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel where he had an apartment. The legend goes that he drank 18 whiskies in a row and went into a coma, dying of acute alcohol poisoning. (Fun fact: Swift’s friend and Eras Tour opener Phoebe Bridgers released a song called “Dylan Thomas” in 2019 with her band Better Oblivion Community Center that nods to his much mythologized demise. Spoiler: this isn’t the track’s only connection to Bridgers.) However, it is now believed that Thomas died of pneumonia that had gone undiagnosed by his physician. 

Patti Smith

Swift is undoubtedly one of music’s best modern songwriters, but on this track she makes it clear she has nothing on Patti Smith, who’s been called a “punk poet laureate” thanks to her 1975 debut, Horses, a clever blend of free form poetry and punk rock. But Smith is more than a charismatic musician, she is the author of several poetry collections and books including two bestselling memoirs, 2010’s Just Kids, which focused on her early life and friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and 2012’s M Train, which looked at her life and career after Horses. 

Smith has never topped the music charts, but she has won countless awards for her work, including the National Book Award in 2010 and, the following year, the prestigious Polar Music Prize, often called “the Nobel Prize of Music.” (Like Dylan Thomas, she also spent some time at the Chelsea Hotel, but we’ll save that for a little later.) Clearly, there is no shame in feeling a little inadequate compared to her. It’s just a wee bit surprising to hear that a newly minted billionaire pop star who has basically broken every musical record feels that way. Smith seems to be in Swift’s camp as well. In 2019, she came to Swift’s defense after the latter was criticized for not being more politically outspoken. “She’s a pop star who’s under tremendous scrutiny all the time,” Smith told the New York Times. “And one can’t imagine what that’s like.”

The Chelsea Hotel

It’s safe to say, the infamous residence hotel located in, as its name suggests, the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan would be a fitting headquarters for the Tortured Poets Department. Built between 1863 and 1865, the newly renovated 12-story hotel has long been a respite for promising artists like Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, and Thomas Wolfe who were looking for cheap rent and few frills as they pursued the bohemian lifestyle.

Playwright Arthur Miller, who stayed there for six years following his 1961 divorce from Marilyn Monroe, called it “the high spot of the surreal.” He meant this quite literally; more than a few times he had gotten high off the marijuana smoke that often wafted through the halls. “There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame,” Miller said of the place where he would end up writing the play After the Fall

The Chelsea Hotel is also where Bob Dylan wrote Blonde on Blonde, Andy Warhol shot parts of his experimental film Chelsea Girls, and Sid Vicious allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death. As previously mentioned, Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith both lived there, but they never crossed paths. Sixteen years after Thomas’ death, Smith moved into room 1017, the smallest in the hotel, with Mapplethorpe for a rate of $55 per week. “The Chelsea was like a dollhouse in the Twilight Zone,” Smith wrote in Just Kids. “With a hundred rooms, each a small universe.” 

Shortly after Swift’s new album dropped, the Chelsea Hotel excitedly posted on their Instagram Story that they were “screaming” over the song, which they were turning way up, and “ready to welcome Swifites.”  Those who are looking to book a room for a night will pay at least five times what Smith did 55 years ago. 

Charlie Puth

Charlie Puth might want to send Swift an Edible Arrangement or something because he’s about to become an even bigger star. Fitting, since that’s exactly what Swift wants, according to “The Tortured Poets Department.” She truly is a mastermind—even if the Puth lyric is getting mixed reviews since some argue he is already bigtime.

For those who are only learning about Puth thanks to Swift’s namedrop—“You smokеd, then ate seven bars of chocolate/ We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist”—here’s a brief scouting report on him: he’s the pop star with perfect pitch behind Wiz Khalifa’s Furious 7 mega anthem “See You Again,” the Meghan Trainor duet “Marvin Gaye,” and “We Don’t Talk Anymore” with Swift’s BFF Selena Gomez. He has a habit of oversharing in interviews and has been known to post a thirst trap or two. He’s also a total Swiftie who regularly geeks out over her chord progressions on TikTok where he has over 22 million followers. When Swift joined TikTok in 2021, Puth was quick to welcome her there. “I’ve lurked your account for ages!” she wrote in response. “Thanks for the welcome, piano prince.” Game recognize game, I guess. 

The Puth line also has more than one Healy connection. Healy’s band released a song called “Chocolate” in 2013. Five years later, the 1975 frontman tweeted, “That Charlie Puth and Boyz II Men track is harrrrrd,” in reference to Puth’s single “If You Leave Me Now” off his album Voicenotes. Puth appeared to be touched by the endorsement, replying, “Thank u matty!” Thanks to this tweet, he might have to send Healy a little something, too. 

Lucy Dacus

Swift wonders if this guy is going to make a mess of things, but feels better after learning that “you told Lucy you'd kill yourself if I ever leave.” The “Lucy” in question is believed to be Lucy Dacus, a solo indie artist and a member of the band Boygenius with Julien Baker and Bridgers, a longtime friend of Healy’s. (Bridgers recorded additional vocals for The 1975’s 2020 album Notes on a Conditional Form, and appears in the band’s video for “I’m In Love With You.”

Swift’s fling with Healy only lasted from May to June of last year, and his friendship with Dacus might not have lasted much longer. Last September, Healy and Dacus made headlines for their own breakup of sorts on X (formerly Twitter). Healy posted an ableist joke about her band’s name that used the R-word. “I don’t really hear from her that often,” he quipped. To which Dacus shot back, “You don’t hear from me at all.” That comeback was enough to convince Healy he should deactivate his account. One should expect nothing less from the queen of Twitter comebacks

Jack Antonoff

On “The Tortured Poets Department,” Swift’s closest confidante is “Jack,” which is undoubtedly a reference to her friend and longtime producer Jack Antonoff, who has worked on all four of the re-recordings of her old albums (aka the “Taylor’s Versions”), as well as seven records of all original material, including her latest. (He is a co-writer on the title track.) He also produced The 1975’s 2022 album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language, making him someone who knew both parties intimately. 

If Entertainment Tonight’s sources are to be believed, Antonoff was the matchmaker who brought the musical duo together. And there are clues that he was there from the very beginning of this short-term relationship. Antonoff was hanging out with Swift and Healy at members-only Casa Cipriani in New York, where they were first spotted holding hands. Days later, the two were again photographed together, this time leaving Electric Lady Studios where Swift was recording with Antonoff. 

Thanks to Swift’s shoutout on the title track, it’s safe to assume things might have been a little awkward for Antonoff after the two split up. Being that Healy did not attend Antonoff’s wedding this past summer but Swift did, one could venture to guess that she got custody of Jack in the breakup. 

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